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The story behind the cover

The photo was taken in December 1983. It was the year I was born––and a few months after the FBI first opened their investigation into my father.

That’s me in the middle, the fat baby with a mohawk, gripped tightly under my mother’s arm. My brother is on the right and my sister on the left, though she was shunted off the cover to the spine of the book, which she naturally took umbrage at.

We’re on my parent’s honeymoon in Maui. Mum didn’t like to be separated from us, so we all went on honeymoon together. Our happy family of five––and the FBI.

My dad was an international pot smuggler. His organisation was responsible for shipping hundreds of tons of Thai stick into America. He was good at it, at least, until he wasn’t. He’d started his career on Wall Street, but trading stocks didn’t offer quite the same thrill.

When we arrived in Maui, Dad made a call to his informant, who warned him that two pairs of undercover federal agents had boarded the plane with us and were posing as couples staying in the same resort. The FBI were committed. We’d done a lot of living with them by our side. They’d been there through one birth (mine); one death (Grandpa); and one marriage (my parents). And now they were coming on honeymoon.

Dad said they were easy to spot. Their holiday attire was ill-fitting and the couples didn’t hold hands at the beach. They appear in the background of our family photographs. Like this one. See that figure in the background by the pool? That's them.

Mum was angry and her anger was always radiant; palpable to all in its radius even after all these years, shining through the faded patina of photograph film. Dad had asked her to pose with us by the pool before dinner so he could take a photo of the FBI in the background taking pictures right back at us. I’d love to see the counterpart to this image; the last vestiges of our happy family life stacked in an FBI evidence box and stored away, much like those memories.

I never wanted an image of my family in my memoir. The story is about my childhood growing up on the run from the FBI and the fall out from that time. I wanted the reader to create their own image in their minds, and so it would be a collaboration between my words and their imagination, the story belonging as much to them as to me. To include a photo felt like intervening in that process.

But the first few covers the designer at my publishing house came up with didn’t speak to the story for me. It was a difficult process to find a creative language that we could understand between their visual world and mine, harder than I had imagined, and I was searching for common ground. After talking to my mum, she emailed me this photo, suggesting it would be perfect for the cover. I agreed, but I was hesitant. I wanted to protect her privacy and putting her on the cover felt like the opposite of that.

“Are you sure? Once it’s done we can’t go back?” I said on the phone.

“It doesn’t even look like me anymore, and who’s going to care?” she said, with trademark nonchalance.

She felt disconnected from that past self, the women in the photo gripping that baby with all her love and might.

She was right about the image. A brilliant designer friend, CJ Boyd, distorted the photo to speak to the miscommunications inherent in the story and coloured it in the hazy pink hues of Californian days long gone. But it is the image that still speaks strong. The layers of looking, forward and back, through the lens of my father’s camera and the FBI’s, looking at my mother, and my mother’s gaze direct at the reader. And myself, as a baby, oblivious to world about to fall down around me.

Tyler Wetherall is the author of No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

Tyler appeared on The Riff Raff podcast - listen to our interview with her here.

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